The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

Marie Benoit's Diary: A surprise visit to Paris and to Chanel’s apartment

Marie Benoît Wednesday, 11 September 2019, 09:27 Last update: about 10 days ago

I much enjoyed my two-week break in Cheltenham and the Cotswolds where the temperature is for humans and not elephants, as it is in Malta in the summer months. However I am looking forward to going into winter mode with its concerts, theatre, friends to tea and out for the occasional lunch or dinner. There is the hint of chill in the night air. I am still in relax mode but under the sunblock I'm gearing up. So here's the last of my Nostalgia series. Next week my Diary will be written in 'real time'.

26th May 2013

My darling eldest had a surprise in store for me and asked me to 'block those days,' as we were going away. I did not quite know what to expect but knew it was going to be some lovely experience.

 Of course once we got to the airport, all was revealed. We were going to spend a few days in Paris, just her and me. What could be more delicious? I was as excited as a little girl and impatient to find out what plans she had made.

Our mini holiday went well right from the start. She had chosen an old fashioned hotel all green and gilt with a glass covered yard full of light and palm trees where we had breakfast. Perfect for me. I am no lover of modern hotels even if on the whole they tend to be more comfortable than the older ones but they are generally anonymous and have no character.

* * *

The two memorable events of our Paris break were a concert, Hymne a Piaf, a bi-lingual tribute by the French chanteuse Caroline Nin and a visit to Chanel's apartment at 31, Rue Cambon. Camille had arranged it all and without me suspecting a thing. I couldn't have been happier.

 

* * *

Caroline Nin (backed by an excellent two piece band) was singing at the Essaion, Rue Pierre au Lard. The theatre is found at the end of a short alleyway, just off Le Centre Georges Pompidou.  It is underground, unimposing and very intimate: maybe 60 seats? All stone walls, arches and vaulted ceilings. No one has a bad seat.

The jazz singer not only gave us great renditions of Piaf songs, but dramatic vignettes of key periods in Edith Piaf's life from age five till her death at only 47. Caroline Nin did a great performance and brought it all to life. It was very special to be in such an intimate environment with other Piaf fans. Caroline did an excellent job of capturing her spirit and personality. She breathed new life into spine-tingling French anthems such as La Vie en Rose, Hymne a l'Amour and Padam. The singer was not afraid of performing well-known pieces in her own way. Of course she is no Piaf but still the concert was most enjoyable.

This was undoubtedly a highlight of our holiday. Hearing these familiar songs, in Paris, on home turf was a magical enhancement.

* * *

My thoughtful eldest had arranged a special visit to 31, Rue Cambon, Chanel's apartment which is only opened by special request and not to the general public. Not only am I a great admirer of Chanel but have been giving the Chanel brand publicity for so many years.

We climbed up the famous spiral staircase which I had seen in photos so often, either with Mademoiselle herself or with models descending. Inside, the apartment is like a baroque mirage set within her commercial premises. The famous ateliers are above and the salons below. Sandwiched between are her three private rooms.

At the end of the day, flocks of seamstresses scatter down the steps from the workrooms on their way home. During the hours of their employment they could be seen trotting from floor to floor, their outstretched arms laden with strange forms concealed under covers. A suit for Jackie Kennedy perhaps? When John Kennedy was shot she was wearing a pink Chanel suit, remember? A ball gown for Jeanne Moreau maybe, a close friend, or something very special for Romy Schneider.

In the apartment reigned the woman whom the entire house knew simply as 'Mademoiselle.'

* * *

The rooms are a jewel. Everything is just beautiful: the Venetian mirrors, the bronzes, the chandeliers, the Coromandel screens, the comfortable sofa and the chaise longue in which she reclined after a hectic day to gather her thoughts. We had an excellent guide whose name, I am afraid, escapes me at the time of writing.

It is well known that the painter José-Maria Sert (1874-1945), one of the great Spanish muralists, advised Chanel on her first acquisitions which were made in 1921. It was through this artist that the successful couturiere learned to appreciate rare objects, beautiful mirrors, gilded wood, and screens such as her first Coromandels - and through him that she learned to mix periods and styles.

* * *

The walls are covered with a simple copper-gold paper, which, however is scarcely visible behind lacquered Coromandal screens, books and carved wood.

The shelves in the library are made of simple planks in the midst of which hang her magnificent mirrors. Gilded bronze sculptures of different periods and various origins serve as book ends. Books are superbly bound and within arm's reach. They are there to be read and not to be placed under glass and lock and key.

It is a harmonious interior, one never to be forgotten.

How could Coco Chanel have ever guessed that from her humble and unhappy beginnings she would start an empire which is still thriving today. What a genius she was. I salute her and those who continue to keep her creations alive and adapt them to today's world.

 

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